The poet Stanley Kunitz died on Sunday at the age of 100. More amazing than that unusually long life is that he was a productive, live artist for most of it. Indeed, he became poet laureate of the United States at 95.
The ability to stay alive in both senses has to be in part a matter of good fortune, the right genes, and antibodies. But will and motivation also count, and Kunitz had specific, intimate reasons to defy death resolutely. Six weeks before Kunitz was born, in Worcester, Mass., his father committed suicide, leaving behind his failing business, two young daughters, and a pregnant wife who never forgave him. Kunitz was not an autobiographical writer for the most part, but he sometimes chose to be explicit:
THE PORTRAIT My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
The determination to survive was strong in the man—and not only to survive, but to thrive, kicking against pricks of different kinds. In an incident well-known to poets, Kunitz, as a brilliant Harvard undergrad—apparently in those days certain undergrads became grad assistants the fall after graduation—assumed that he would be awarded a graduate teaching fellowship. When he saw that his name was not on the list, he went to his adviser, who chuckled affectionately and explained that the young poet should have realized that Anglo-Saxon students at Harvard would not accept being taught English by a Jew. In Stanley’s account, he decided then and there to reject the academic world, and he began farming in Connecticut He became a teacher many years later when his friend Theodore Roethke recommended him for a job at Bennington.
The drama of resisting fate, a sardonic joy in embattlement and retrenchment, clearly appealed to him. He was a richly formal, incantational, sometimes epigrammatic poet early in his career. The later poems are more terse, less formal. At every point, in every mode, he maintained a bardic intensity about the poet’s calling. Even his description of stripping down to essentials has some air of high drama, along with the comedy:
THE SUMMING-UPWhen young I scribbled, boasting, on my wall.
No Love, No Property, No Wages.
In youth’s good time I somehow bought them all,
And cheap, you’d think, for maybe a hundred pages.Now in my prime, disburdened of my gear,
My trophies ransomed, broken, lost,
I carve again on the lintel of the year
My sign: MOBILITY—and damn the cost!
The relish for new life, jettisoning the old, was a motif in his work from youth all the way into the poems he wrote in his late 80s.
Those poems were plain and direct, unlike the baroque work of his first book, Intellectual Things, published in 1930. Here is “Touch Me,” the final poem in his Collected Poems, published in 2000:
Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
It’s consistent with an urge to renew himself that this poem begins with a quotation from an earlier Kunitz poem.
Perhaps the willful absence of his father disposed Kunitz to be a paternal figure to young poets. In my generation, he helped foster Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Michael Ryan, and Olga Broumas, to name only a few. Younger poets who predeceased him, including Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, brought him books and manuscripts. In his devotion to the urgent, high calling of the poet, as embodied by Blake, Hopkins, Keats, he was a fiery son as well as a steady elder.